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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 14 'Concerto Without Orchestra' (1834-35, rev 1853) [29:16]
Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26 (1839-40) [21:29]
Drei Fantasiestücke, Op. 111 (1851) [11:18]
Gesänge der Frühe, Op. 133 (1853) [12:16]
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
rec. 4-6 July 2018, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
CHANDOS CHAN 200812 [74:26]

This release represents feted piano scion Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s first studio toe-dip into an area of repertoire that’s broadly speaking new to him. Schumann certainly feels like a clear paradigm shift from the holy triumvirate of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Of course, Bavouzet has produced scintillating, revelatory discs of Haydn and (the complete) Beethoven sonatas for Chandos, while his ongoing cycle of Mozart concertos from Manchester (with the Camerata under Gabor Takács-Nagy) has also received pretty much universal praise. So does the Frenchman’s bubble show any signs of bursting in Schumann? Of course not….

Schumann’s most esteemed sequences of miniatures have long identified him as the Germanic composer perhaps most (unconsciously?) touched by Gallic sensibilities. In fact the only digitally recorded complete cycle of his piano works that’s currently available (as far as I can make out) is by Bavouzet’s compatriot Eric Le Sage on Alpha. At its best (for me in the early sets such as Papillons or the Davidsbündlertänze) it’s excellent, though in the more formal, larger scale works (the three sonatas, the Fantaisie) Le Sage’s inspiration can occasionally sag a little. So it’s something of a surprise to realise that so few French pianists have actually taken up the cudgel where Schumann’s solo piano music is concerned.

Typically for Bavouzet, there is nothing remotely predictable about this programme. Arguably the best-known of the works here is Faschingsschwank aus Wien (translated variously as ‘Carnival Jest…’ or ‘Festive Scenes from Vienna’}, but even that set could hardly be described as a concert staple. The Sonata No 3 in F minor (Grande Sonate or Concert sans orchestra) is certainly Schumann’s least performed work in that form, while the late collections Drei Fantasiestücke and especially the weird Gesänge der Frühe (Songs of Dawn) are both products of the period during which the composer’s mental deterioration was beginning to take hold. Both may be unfamiliar to listeners who aren’t already ardent Schumannistas.
As is his wont, Bavouzet himself provides a revealing note in the booklet which acts as a personal appendix to Bayan Northcott’s characteristically penetrating and readable analyses. He dates his own discovery of the Sonata No 3 back in the day to hearing a recording by Horowitz; later he was able to discuss the work with the legendary virtuoso during his final French tour in the mid-1980s. Horowitz’ account of the turbulent Allegro first movement fused elements of Schumann’s original 1835 version with the 1853 revision, a strategy the Frenchman adopts here. If in architectural terms this Schumann sonata is the most problematic of the three for the listener, I would argue that Bavouzet here gives its most cogent and satisfying recorded account to date. Quite apart from the exceptional Chandos sound, the clarity of the voicing here in a work which can seem to ramble and even be blown asunder by its own tempestuousness is a constant wonder. Rhythmic vitality abounds. The Frenchman ensures that the descending five note ‘Clara’ theme which appears at various stages in the Sonata is tactfully absorbed into the work’s fabric and never telegraphed. His sensitivity in the shading of the Quasi Variazioni third movement (on an Andantino theme of Clara’s) which constitutes the reflective core of the work demonstrates profound empathy and even in the crazy Prestissimo possibile finale Bavouzet’s poise somehow projects lucidity and clarity in the midst of tumult. His is a truly convincing account of a work sometimes characterised as an unwieldy and unyielding behemoth.

In the long opening movement of Faschingsschwank aus Wien Bavouzet conveys what on the face of it appears to be a lively bounce and zest in what he describes as “…one of the most splendid rondos ever written for the piano…”, yet he is more than alive to the implied despair of its more ambiguous episodes – resulting in a panel the Frenchman likens to a cinematographic depiction of the lonely outsider concealed within a raucous crowd. Indeed Bavouzet presents an intriguing overview of the whole work, perhaps maximising the angst inherent in the minor-key even-numbered movements and thus proposing a convincing alternative to a piece that superficially, at least, seems to convey a more cheerful side to Schumann.

And this conception neatly links to the two later, briefer collections on the disc. I recently got to know the Drei Fantasiestücke, Op 111 in Andreas Staier’s revelatory Harmonia Mundi recording on an 1837 Érard (HMC 902171). Staier’s stark playing, combined with the sepia tints of the Érard make this music seem curiously ahead of its time; the more familiar sounds of Bavouzet’s fine Yamaha CFX arguably better enable the listener to link Schumann’s focus on the keyboard’s lower registers in these pieces to a sound-world that as Northcott points out definitively pre-empts Brahms. The hesitancy of the relatively long second piece in A flat is tellingly underlined by Bavouzet. By the time of the emotionally numbed little pieces of the Gesänge der Frühe (Songs of Dawn) of 1853, we know that by now Schumann was standing on the precipice of the abyss, and that he had befriended Brahms, whose early piano works hover in the background, most overtly in the opening panel, marked Im ruhigen Tempo. Bavouzet captures the inward detachment and struggle of these pieces in a reading of singular concentration.

Chandos producer Rachel Smith and engineer Rosanna Fish are to be congratulated for the superbly rounded, present sound they have achieved on this recording, which is outstanding even by the exacting standards of the house. Bavouzet’s new disc is almost self-recommending, directing as it does a beam of light into corners of Schumann’s very particular oeuvre which are too seldom explored by the other piano big-hitters of today. There is no ‘Vol 1’ on the cover to indicate a Schumann series, but one earnestly hopes that this is not the last we hear of Bavouzet’s engagement with this repertoire. As with virtually everything he records, a tangible spirit of curiosity and adventure pervades the entire disc.

Richard Hanlon

Previous review: Robert Beattie

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